In March at the 33rd Science Fiction Galaxy Awards in Sichuan, China, emerging science-fiction scribe Yang WanQing’s A collection of medium-length science fiction short stories ‘The Returned Man’ won the top prize for 'Best Original Book'. Ji Zhu, brand manager of the Mecrob Team, sat down with Yang WanQing to discuss the relationship between rock music and science fiction, the inspirations and Cyberpunk etc.
Yang Wanqing is a science fiction author and winner of many awards, including the Galaxy Award for Chinese Science Fiction. His short story collections include The Returned Man and Double Helix.
Yang Wanqing has the following works available at Clarkesworld:
HUMMINGBIRD, RESTING ON HONEYSUCKLES
FICTION BY YANG WANQING, TRANSLATED BY JAY ZHANG IN ISSUE 194 – NOVEMBER 2022
Ji: Hello, Yang wanqing! I'm honored to have an opportunity to chat with you. I’ve read all of your books and I’m a big fan. Something that you mentioned really piqued my interest. You said that beauty is the driving force behind the stories of your novels. Where do you find that beauty in science fiction?
Yang: Hello Ji! Thank you for your kind words. I think that we all define “beauty” as something that pleases our senses and our minds. Something that looks beautiful, sounds beautiful, feels beautiful, tastes beautiful. We tend to gravitate toward things that comfort us and make us feel good or safe, and we call them beautiful. Beauty in science fiction can be quite different. We call the universe beautiful, but the universe can be terrifying even when it’s visually striking. We find that everywhere in science fiction. It’s in the grand, in the infinite, in the void between beautiful stars. In science fiction, beautiful things are often terrifying or even depressing. I believe that reflects the nature of our universe. When we see beauty in sci-fi, it’s in the conflict between the strangeness of outer space and the familiarity of our planet, and in the conflict between our imagination and our reality. I believe that it’s because of this conflict that science fiction resonates with so many people.
Ji: Some people say that sci-fi writers don’t write about anything “deep” or “real,” and that they “need to get a life.” What do you think about that?
Yang: I think that science-fiction is one of the most important genres in literature, precisely because it’s filled with deep ideas. I get that some people think that sci-fi writers spend too much time living in their own heads and not in the real world. It’s a common jab or insult but, in my opinion, it’s wrong to try to shame or judge people who like to explore their imagination more than the “real world.” Some of the best works of science fiction, the ones that have shaped popular culture, were written by people who had the strangest and most vivid imaginations but didn’t have much of a “real life.” In fact, I think that if you’re a sci-fi writer and you try to make your work as realistic, or maybe as close to your own life as possible, then you’re actually doing your work a great disservice. If you want to write sci-fi, you should let your imagination run wild. Science fiction is all about freedom of thought and about exploring your ideas, so getting lost in your head isn’t a bad thing to do while writing it.
Ji: You once mentioned that you consider yourself to be a “Young rocker” who loves science fiction. As a young rocker myself, I want to know if you’ve found any connection between rock music and science fiction. Is there anything in science fiction that embodies the spirit of rock and roll? Is there maybe a specific rock band that you like and have listened to while writing?
Yang: One thing that rock and science fiction have in common is that they are both niche subcultures in China today, presumably because of their high barriers of entry. Fans of rock music and fans of science fiction share a belief in aesthetic superiority. They both exist outside the “mainstream aesthetic,” which you can see very easily by how the term “punk” was taken from rock and used in sci-fi. Punk is all about defiance and even disdain, a rejection to being refined and disciplined. The aesthetic superiority idea I mentioned is a bit pejorative because, at my age, when I look back at music and literature, I see a chain of contempt. Everyone’s despising what they think is “kitsch.” People who listen to classical music think that those who listen to rock are stupid. People who read “deep” literature think people who read sci-fi are dumb. The contempt is unnecessary, and being eclectic and listening or reading a wide range of different genres will only broaden your horizons. I listen to anything. Rock, pop, classical, acoustic. But I have a deep love for rock, of course. I used to listen to Hoobastank and Simple Plan in college, and Alterbrige and Daughtry after college. In recent years, I’ve listened to Bai Juzheng and also Steven Wilson and Greta Van Fleet.
Ji: When did you start writing science fiction? What do you think it takes to become a professional science fiction writer?
Yang: I've been reading science fiction since I was in middle school, so I guess that makes me a seasoned sci-fi fan. Science fiction fans who read a lot have one thing in common: they want to try to create their own sci-fi worlds. Writing isn’t a romantic or magical process, like a lot of people think it is. Writing often involves a lot of embarrassment, pain, and even despair. As a sci-fi writer, in addition to loving the genre, you have to have an open mind, a willingness to keep learning, and you have to keep paying attention to human nature and technology. You also have to be optimistic about the future.
Ji: Have you ever become uninspired or run out of ideas? Haruki Murakami has a book called “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” which explores the parallels between his inspiration to write and his daily solo run. Have you found similar techniques that help you eliminate negative emotions and create more fluidly?
Yang: All literary works rely on inspiration, and writing science fiction certainly requires waiting for your muse to show up. It’s very common to hit a dead end, like having a concept without a story, or a story without an original concept. What you need is that golden opportunity where both the idea and a full fledged story come together, and that’s the muse when it comes to writing. One of my techniques to exclude negative emotions is playing games, and another is actually writing. Both activities allow me to enter a transcendent state, which I call "mind flow,” which is a wonderful experience and one of the strongest positive emotions I get from writing (which is much more rewarding and long-lasting than gaming!).
Ji: Clarkesworld has published many translations of China’s best speculative fiction writers, including translations of your work. What do you think of the trend of translating Chinese science fiction? How do foreign readers differ from Chinese readers? Have any of the translations of your work distorted its meaning?
Yang: We now have many excellent and enthusiastic translators, and because of their efforts, more and more Chinese science fiction novels are going out into the world, which is very gratifying. Regarding "distortion", this hasn’t happened yet with my work. Unlike poetry or literature deeply rooted in a specific country’s history or culture, science fiction is less likely to be translated in a distorted way. I think this is because science fiction is more universal. It uses more neutral technical imagery and language. Distortion of meaning or intent could also happen from the reader’s side, where they read a translated work and interpret the wrong meaning. But I don’t think that’ll happen with science fiction fans. Science fiction fans around the world generally come from a background of engaging in interesting and intelligent ideas and have similar high standards for reading and comprehension, which helps overcome distortion.
Ji: Do you have any works in progress or upcoming publications you can talk about with our readers?
Yang: I finished working on a full-length novel late last year, and if things go well, it should be available between this summer and fall. This book hits two important milestones for me: it is my first full-length novel and it is my first work of historical science fiction. Stay tuned, everyone!
Ji: Nowadays, more and more literary authors are turning to science-fiction. Do you have any suggestions for them?
Yang: I have read some science fiction novels by writers of “pure literature,” such as Ian McEwan and Hongwei Li. I feel that in terms of the pure strength and beauty of prose, they have obvious advantages compared to science fiction writers. However, in terms of sheer imagination and of logical rigor, there is still room for improvement. I hope that the writers of pure literature can pay more attention to the conception and the presentation of technology in their novels, while exploring the complexity of human nature, which is the fundamental appeal of science fiction.
Ji: What effect do you think future technology will have on humanity? For example, has Chat GPT changed your views about AI? Do you think AI could potentially replace writers like you?
Yang: Personally, I think AIs like Chat GPT will eventually replace people in most job fields, but whether they will be able to do creative work is yet to be seen. The purpose of technology is to make our lives easier, more comfortable, and to let humanity achieve their full potential. Because of this point of view, I choose not to reject Chat GPT and other similar technologies. But, do I think that AI should reach the level of machines written about by von Neumann? Do I think they should be able to do corpus collection and semantic recognition? Do I think that they should achieve the most important functions that the human brain has developed over billions of years, imagination and creativity? Even as a techno-optimisit, I have reservations about those possibilities.
Ji: Many of our readers are members of the cyberpunk community. What is your understanding of cyberpunk and its impact on literature, including your own?
Yang: I think that to understand “cyberpunk,” you have to look at the word itself. “Cyber” means electronic, computerized. “Punk,” as I mentioned earlier, is an attitude that embodies the defiance of established cultural paradigms. As the name suggests, “cyberpunk” refers to a future world that blends technology with defiance. When Blade Runner and Neurmancer were first published, they cemented the concept of “high technology and low life” into the mainstream. But I think that even classifying something as “punk” or even coining that term to begin with is ironic, because punk is all about refusing to be defined or tamed. Nowadays, many “cyberpunk” works forget the punk attitude altogether and just give us the “high technology” but not the “low life.” Of course, the genre has produced many masterpieces even if they weren’t quite as punk or even that technologically advanced, like Attack on Titan, for example. In recent years, I was very impressed by Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide, whose world blends the natural environment of the ocean with high technology and made me understand the power of true cyberpunk again.
Ji: Some of our models are rendered in a cyberpunk style—such as the cyberpunk spider, which was inspired by the work of Alexander Trufanov and comes as a model that can be assembled. How do you think science-fiction intersects with such designs?
Yang: First of all, I want to thank you for sending me the cyberpunk spider as a gift. I was truly amazed when I got my hands on the real thing. I love its design, its texture, its complexity and how “hardcore” it feels. I’ve only assembled the head so far, but the process of putting it together really got me thinking about how tiny pieces can come together to create something new. The process is so much more intricate than something like Lego, which I also enjoy. Building the cyberpunk spider is more complicated than Legos, almost abstract in a way. The assembly process reminds me of creating art. Works of art are also built using very basic components: a word, a stroke on a canvas, a chisel on wood…and eventually they become a work of art that can inspire the imagination. By assembling the cyberpunk spider , and many toys, we engage in the same creative processes that artists use. It really goes to show how “playing” and making art are inextricably linked. I think that combining science fiction ideas and tangible products is a new and emerging business practice. There are two ways I can think of to explore this. One is to make products to bring things from science fiction literature or films into reality. Like Senbao Building Block’s Wandering Earth peripheral vehicle, for example. Another idea is to develop science fiction books or movies based on original drawings. You can see an example of this in the American Show called “Tales from the Loop,” which is based on an original collection of sci-fi illustrations by the Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag.
Ji: Steve Jobs often talked about the intersection where design meets innovation. He believed that the soul of a product lies in its design. In his biography, he attributes his success to his ability to weave technology, design, and humanism together. As a science fiction writer, how do you view this idea?
Yang: I couldn't agree more with Steve Jobs. The poet Joseph Brodsky once said that language is really just diluted matter. Let me elaborate on that idea: concepts are also diluted matter, or rather, matter that hasn’t yet been shaped. If you described the iPhone to people five years before its creation, they would’ve believed you were describing a science fiction device. The reason the iPhone was adored and embraced by consumers all over the world was that, as Steve Jobs said, it embodied the perfect fusion of technology, aesthetics, and humanity. I’ve come to discover that science fiction is only remarkable when it combines hard science, gorgeous aesthetics, and the beating heart of humanity. Science fiction writers and genius entrepreneurs, like Steve Jobs, are actually doing the same thing: taking concepts that only exist in their brains, and turning them into products that are rooted not just in technology, but also in the humanity beyond that technology.
Ji: Thank you so much for talking to us!
Yang: Thank you!